Sir Alex Ferguson delivered many a notable quote during his 26 years in charge of Manchester United, but it was on September 28, 2002 that he came out with probably the most instantly recognisable outburst of his time at Old Trafford.
His team had finished the previous season 10 points behind Arsenal and, just a few weeks into the new campaign, were already lagging six points behind Arsène Wenger's side who were now United’s biggest threat by some distance.
But perhaps more concerning was the fact that United were already three points behind Liverpool in the Premier League table, the first time they had trailed their great north-west rivals in over a decade.
Facing the greatest challenge to his side’s supremacy since the likes of Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United dared to go head-to-head with the Old Trafford club, Ferguson was on the brink of what the media were dubbing his biggest managerial crisis in a decade.
To make things worse, when the Guardian’s Michael Walker sat down for an interview with Ferguson at the end of that month United had just lost two league games in rapid succession, to Bolton Wanderers then Leeds United, and found themselves ninth in the table.
Just a year previously Ferguson had announced that he would be quitting Old Trafford in the summer of 2002, only to reverse the decision after claiming that his wife and family had convinced him to stay on. But, despite his U-turn, United appeared to be listing with some even daring to question one of the great managerial careers of all time.
One of those was a certain Alan Hansen, who Ferguson had famously omitted from Scotland’s 1986 World Cup squad and at the start of the 1995/96 campaign had openly doubted Ferguson’s transfer activity along with his decision to blood a number of untried youngsters, stating: “You can’t win anything with kids.” Needless to say, Hansen wasn’t shy in coming forwards when it came to his opinions on Ferguson.
Writing in his column for the Daily Telegraph, the former Liverpool captain said: “When the players of Manchester United look back this week on defeats to Bolton and Leeds, they will recognise that although you cannot win the Premiership by November, you can certainly lose it by then. Their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, will recognise this difficult start to the season for what it is: the greatest challenge of his career.”
Seeing his opportunity to set the record straight, while also having a dig at the demise of Hansen’s former team, Ferguson’s reply was as quick as it was cutting. “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment,” he told Walker. “My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f**king perch. And you can print that.”
When Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986 United hadn’t won the title for over 20 years whereas Liverpool were the dominant force in English football having been crowned champions seven times in the last 10 years, including a league and FA Cup double in 1986. The Scot’s obsession with the club which he once referred to as “that mob” often bordered on the unhealthy.
“This isn’t just a job to me. It’s a mission,” he said in 1988. “I am deadly serious about it – some people would reckon too serious… we will get there and believe me, when it happens, life will change for Liverpool and everybody else – dramatically.”
Such was his concern at the prospect of arguably the club’s biggest rivals once again climbing back to the top of English football he wrote in his second autobiography regarding Liverpool’s 2001 cup treble campaign: “I could always feel their breath on my neck from 30 miles away. My thought was, ‘Oh no, not them. Anyone but them.’”
But he needn’t have worried. By the time of his 2002 repost to Hansen, Ferguson had already led his side to seven Premier League crowns, one Champions League, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and four FA Cups with much more to follow.
And despite the ropey start that season, United would get the last laugh in 2002-03. Ferguson’s side didn’t lose a game after Boxing Day, strolling to another league title - United’s 14th in total - while Liverpool finished fifth.
Another 10 years and six league titles on, Ferguson retired with United having surpassed Liverpool’s former record of 18 championships. You could say he was all mouth and all action.
Five more memorable Fergie quotes
- After United’s dramatic Champions League victory over Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou in 1999 Ferguson muttered the immortal words: “Football, bloody hell!” to ITV reporter Gary Newbon in his post-match interview.
- During the final stages of the 2003 Premier League season, with United and Arsenal both in contention to win the league, Ferguson described the run-in, in his own inimitable way by saying: “It’s getting tickly now - squeaky-bum time, I call it.”
- When describing the abilities of Gary Neville, who had come through the youth ranks as part of the famous ‘Class of ’92’, Ferguson said of his young full-back: “If he was an inch taller he’d be the best centre-half in Britain. His father is 6ft 2in - I’d check the milkman.”
- After yet another spat with great rival and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, Ferguson once claimed: “They say he’s an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages! I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages!”
- Following Wayne Rooney’s decision to stay at United having requested a transfer in 2010, Ferguson reflected: “Sometimes you look in a field and you see a cow and you think it’s a better cow than the one you’ve got in the field.”